Play should be under attack, not integrity

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We can stipulate for the record that the play was unconscionable and indefensible. It subverted the rules beyond all acceptable limits. It was not trickery. It was cheating.

Lakeside football coach Jody Grooms should have known better. He involved his players in a competitive fraud. He taught them how to ambush the unsuspecting opposition by sending one eligible receiver off the field at the snap while sending a second ineligible player onto the field behind the defense 40 yards from the line of scrimmage. It violates so many different rules that had the officials caught it they could have reasonably marked off yardage from Effingham into Chatham County.

These facts -- caught on videotape and combed over like the Columbia County version of the Zapruder film -- are indisputable. We can all agree on that and that the coach behind the scheme deserves to be punished.

Beyond this, however, the incident has become polarizing. Debate over the degree of punishment warranted has dragged on for a week and left Grooms' career in limbo. The school has been fined $250 and the coach has been placed on "severe warning status" for 2008 by the Georgia High School Association.

The Columbia County school board stripped Grooms of his athletic director title and stipend effective immediately. Grooms has apologized, admitted his error in judgment and been held up for public ridicule.

In my book, that's enough. For others, it won't ever be enough.

His harshest critics have all but gathered outside his house carrying torches. The public witch hunt isn't seeking justice. It's out for blood. Nothing short of ruining a man's life and cutting off his means of employment will be sufficient, it seems.

Since the story broke last week, it has generated a tidal wave of emotion. The video of the offending play posted anonymously on YouTube has been viewed nearly 16,000 times. The various stories posted on The Chronicle Web site have generated more than 1,200 comments at last count. The heated debate has produced no consensus on what should be deemed appropriate punishment.

Some people are even angry at Grooms' players for standing up in front of the school board and defending him while all they do is lob grenades from the anonymity of their computer keyboards.

Settle down, people. Take a deep breath and let's make a rational decision.

I can certainly understand the argument that Grooms should be fired. He's an educator, and this was a shameful lesson to be teaching young children.

In an age when so few of our nation's celebrities, athletes, politicians or corporate executives are held accountable for their destructive and often criminal actions, it's heartening to see people take a stand on decency.

At the same time, it's disheartening to see a strong undercurrent that lacks compassion, forgiveness and the promise of redemption. Too many people are screaming for the sanction of last resort. One strike and you're out. Don't let the door hit you.

Those mad at Grooms have tried to revise his past to prove some pattern that suits their view. It couldn't possibly have been an isolated breach of character. Despite no evidence to prove it, he must have been dreaming up ways to cheat all along.

Even good people of strong character make mistakes. Grooms admitted his. He accepted responsibility. He apologized for the embarrassment it has caused the school and his players. He vowed it would never happen again.

I tried to talk with Grooms on Monday, and he politely asked to wait until his status had been resolved before making further public comment. That it hasn't been resolved still is to the shame of his superiors who seem to be gauging how strong the wind blows by watching Grooms hang alone on the line. Grooms hasn't answered his office or home phone for several days. His cell phone has been understandably disconnected.

Grooms is certainly hurting. His reputation has been sullied. His career has been jeopardized. That he would even want to return for another season as Lakeside's coach and as a teacher under the toxic atmosphere surrounding this incident is a testimony to the man's character. That's he's willing to own up to his mistakes and stand up in the face of critics shows the kind of coach his players so overwhelmingly stood up for.

That is the kind of lesson I'd want educators teaching my children. As the president of the Lakeside Panthers Touchdown Club so eloquently stated, "the play is not defendable, but the man is."

That's why superintendent Charles Nagle and principal Carney should end this by stating they have punished Grooms enough. They've hit his wallet. They've hit his conscience. They've hit their limit of tolerance.

Everyone is watching, so let's see what kind of lessons he can teach us about second chances.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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